Introduction to Elemental Design Patterns
Design patterns are one of the most successful advances in software engineering, by any measure. The history of design patterns is a strange one though, and somewhere along the way, much of their original utility and elegance has been forgotten, misplaced, or simply miscommunicated. This book can fill in some possible gaps for those who have experience with design patterns and can provide students new to the literature a better way of consuming it bite by bite. When it comes down to it, the design patterns literature as it stands is a collection of rather large nuggets of information of varying degrees of digestibility. This text is a foundation that provides a practitioner familiar with design patterns a methodology for placing those nuggets into a larger system of understanding and provides the student new to design patterns an approach for learning them from basic principles and in smaller pieces that make sense individually. The Elemental Design Patterns are truly elemental in that they form a foundation for design patterns as a discipline.
The collective wisdom of the software engineering community is one of our most valuable assets, and we still have much to learn from each other. This book and the research on which it is based are an attempt to bring to light some of what we have lost regarding design patterns. In the process, it helps fulfill the original intent of design patterns by establishing a better mechanism for shared discussions of patterns, giving us a richer understanding of the software we produce and consume. Our community has produced a breadth of design patterns, but what we lack is depth. That is, we have a broad understanding of wide areas but only a weak ability to stitch them together into a comprehensive whole. It reminds me of the historical transition from alchemy to modern chemistry—until the periodic table came along, the collective wisdom of many intelligent researchers was precise but not strongly correlated. Arguably, the biggest impact of Dmitri Mendeleev’s original periodic table was not so much that it provided a way for chemists to identify patterns between the building blocks of matter but that it provided a way to use those patterns to predict properties of then-undiscovered elements. Gallium and germanium were the first examples of this, with Mendeleev accurately describing their chemical and physical properties well before their discovery. The periodic table advanced chemistry from descriptive discipline to predictive science.
The emergence of design patterns within the software engineering community began with the publication of the seminal Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software in 1994. The Gang of Four (or GoF), Erich Gamma, Richard Helm, Ralph Johnson, and John Vlissides, gathered the various collected wisdoms that had been percolating in the research and academic communities following Gamma’s 1991 PhD dissertation. That work drew heavily from Christopher Alexander’s earlier work in the 1960s. Alexander was a civil engineer and architect, and his work focused on finding patterns of solutions to particular sets of forces within particular contexts. His primary insight was that there are two types of design that occur within architecture, what he named unselfconscious and selfconscious.
Unselfconscious design is most often seen in so-called primitive cultures: a house design is copied faithfully, every time, and apprenticeships are used to ensure fidelity and faithfulness to that particular design. This design changes rarely, and adherence to a given form is considered the goal, primarily because the particular design is the distillation of centuries or millennia of trial and error—it works, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. While the problem of providing people with housing is universal, the various contexts in which that problem occurs, such as rain, desert, ice, swamp, and forest, give rise to an amazing array of styles and designs, but within a particular context, a single design may be considered “the only solution,” and it is frequently incredibly effective given its specific environmental needs. The design, however, is applied without much, if any, individual discretion or decision making.
Selfconscious design is a more modern invention; the designer is free to make conscious decisions at almost every turn involving style, aesthetics, and materials. This architectural freedom can be seen in the wide array of modern architecture within a given locale, city, or neighborhood. Even on your own street, you are likely to see a plethora of styles and distinctive flourishes, each the result of many conscious decisions on the part of the architect. The modern designer has a wide palette of styles to choose from, and generally speaking, the only problem is balancing the owner’s aesthetics and wallet. Sure, the houses meet the basic criteria of putting a roof over the occupants’ heads, but that’s a pretty low bar to set when there are so many other axes on which a design can be examined. When a designer is freed to do anything, it becomes even harder to pick the effective solutions out of the nearly infinite set of inappropriate or just plain bad ones. Building codes are one way we try to limit the bad choices in housing design, but even given those as a starting point, the task is daunting. Merely reading building codes and adhering to them is not going to produce an effective work of architecture. Building codes are generic, but good architecture takes into consideration the environment at every level of detail, from global latitude and regional weather patterns to local soil grades and site-specific terrain or foliage.
You can see the results of this selfconscious design in almost any town or city. One house may be Georgian, one pseudo-Victorian, another a modern glass and steel box, or perhaps a split-level, a ranch, or any other number of styles, kinds, and types of construction, materials, and architectures. We have to ask ourselves, however, whether these designs work as optimal, or even just effective, solutions for that particular environment, for that particular context. Austin, Texas, for example, may not be the best place to build an unshaded glass-faced edifice because the sun is so intense in the summer, creating an added expense from the large increase in cooling costs. Upstate New York may not be an appropriate place for a flat roof because the weight of many feet of snow in the dead of winter adds a significant load to the room beams. The environmental context, the set of forces that create the situation in which the general problem of designing appropriate housing must be solved, is frequently ignored, and the solutions are generally only minimally satisfying or give rise to new problems that must be addressed.
It should be apparent how this applies to software engineering: we are capable of doing nearly anything that pops into our heads, even more so than the architects of physical buildings. This is the amazing strength of programming—and its Achilles heel. We can do just about anything, and usually manage to do so, but unfortunately, the subset of good things out of the set of anything is quite small, and our projects are often late, over budget, and frequently fail in ways spectacular and quiet. Rarely do we walk away from projects with a feeling of accomplishment—more often, we feel we dodged a bullet. Again. Why is this? Why, when we have decades of collective experience, and quite possibly millions of tallied person-years in the field, are we still thrashing in the weeds every time we approach a problem? Some designers and developers seem to be phenomenally able to sidestep the complexity and find the kernel of effectiveness in a design. The rest of us seem to be perpetually stuck between the unselfconsciousness of “because I was told to” and the paralysis of selfconscious design.
Alexander’s work was an attempt to alleviate this problem for architects of buildings, to bring to light the disparity between the effectiveness of the primitive cultures at design and the nearly spastic try-anything approach of modern architecture. Somewhere in between is a balance to be struck. We need to find the underlying principles and general solutions that exist in unselfconscious architecture and describe them in a way that makes them applicable in a wide variety of contexts selfconsciously and with deliberate intent. The wisdom of the various attempts at solutions, hard-earned through trial and error, need to be distilled into a body of concepts that can be learned by anyone, applied in numerous places, and used as a guide for thinking about design.
This is what design patterns are—the distillation of expertise by an exuberant and robust community. This is crowdsourcing at its best. The patterns community that has grown over the decade-plus since the original GoF work is large and energetic, and our output is voluminous. Grady Booch and Celso Gonzalez have been collecting every pattern they can find in industry and academia at their website . So far, they have over 2,000 of them. The quantity of output in this community is huge, and although there are some discussions about the quality, the more pressing problem is one of scale.
Even with a fully indexed, well-curated collection of quality design patterns, there is simply too much information for a nonscholar to sift through accurately and quickly. Worse, it is incredibly difficult for a student wishing to learn the principles behind good design to do so solely from examples of good design. It is a bit like trying to learn the mathematics of aeronautical flow from inspecting aircraft on a runway. For experienced patterns practitioners who believe they have uncovered a new design pattern, there’s no ready way to compare a new pattern against existing patterns to see how it relates to the established literature, and there’s no way to create tooling to support this need.
What the software development community needs is a more thorough understanding of what it has at its disposal, a methodology that explains how to more precisely describe the existing design patterns and does so using components and well-defined principles that are accessible to the student or new developer. What we need is a guide to the underlying basic principles of our design patterns literature so that we can better comprehend, teach, and learn our identified best practices. This book is a foundation for that guide.
1.1. Tribal Musings
The efficiencies we gain from documenting and passing along known best practices are important, but the reason we must do so has been largely ignored in our community. To put it bluntly, we are mortal, and our young field is aging. Already we have lost a number of luminaries who established the groundwork for our industry, and many more will be gone soon. It is just a fact of life, one that we are poorly prepared to deal with as a discipline.
Worse still, software has a peculiar trait of living long past its expected lifetime. COBOL is still a force to be reckoned with in business systems around the globe. Fortran still performs much of the computation in the world’s scientific modeling software. Currently shipping major high-performance computer systems have code embedded deep in their firmware that was first created three decades or more ago, in assembler or C. You can be almost certain that somewhere in the millions of lines of implementation that came with your latest personal computer acquisition lies a piece of source code that no person currently understands.
We know we should document our software; we know we should keep it up to date; we know we should commit to pen or screen the whys, the hows, and the reasons; but we also know it is a pain. It really is, so we don’t do it. What we have instead is a body of knowledge that is locked within the heads of developers, that is passed along in fits and spurts, when prompted and only where necessary, frequently without any comprehensive framework of common understanding among stakeholders.
Grady Booch has popularized the phrase “tribal knowledge” for such information , and it fits all too well. It also has some rather unsettling corollaries.
Cultures that rely solely on oral tradition for the passing of knowledge are limited in both bandwidth and accuracy, and that’s assuming they have a strong tradition of passing along the information. Cultures with a weak discipline for veracity and precision in information transfer leave themselves open to more rapid corruption. A strong oral tradition, however, can result in a very different outcome.
The development community has what is ultimately an oral tradition of information transfer. Although we may write down bits and pieces of what we understand, we frequently do not write down the entirety of our comprehension, and we do not keep such documentation in sync with the evolution of our systems. This document rot is pervasive, and only by asking around for further information can we hope to fill in the gaps to find out why a particular system is how it is.
This isn’t always seen as a bad thing, to be honest. Agile software development methodologies prefer working code over documented code, and it’s hard to argue with this viewpoint. Until it matters, of course. Agile systems have a funny way of becoming legacy systems, of growing into mature codebases with larger teams that must work in concert. Eventually, code that started as an agile effort, if it is successful, will face many of the same challenges as traditionally developed systems. Developers leave. Documentation rots. Knowledge is lost.
Software as it currently stands is not what anyone could accurately call self-documenting, and extracting the salient reasons why a thing was done in a particular way, directly from the source code, has been considered nearly impossible for an automated system. This is unfortunate, because we would like to have our cake and eat it too. We want up-to-date documentation when and where we need it, but we don’t want to be burdened with it otherwise. We’d like our code to be much more self-documenting, or at least automatically documentable, but most of us don’t have that luxury. So we punt and hope for the best. Meanwhile, our collective understanding of the system degrades. In the end, what we have is best described as a very weak oral tradition.
The result is that the collected tribal knowledge degrades into “tribal mythology.” “Why?” is not a question that can be answered any longer, except to say, “Because we’ve always done it that way.” I have a sneaking suspicion that if you have ever been the new hire on a development team, you’re nodding in horror right now. You’ve had that discussion in real life, probably more times than you care to recall.
Tribal mythology is action without comprehension. It is rote without any foundation on which to state why. Other indications that tribal mythology is active in a group include the following: “Because that’s how I was taught it.” “I’m not really sure, but Joe says that’s how its done.” “Jane could have told you, but she retired last year, so just copy what’s there.” “Oh no, don’t change that! It’ll break and we won’t be able to fix it.” These comments exhibit a failure to comprehend the reasons behind an action, or at least an unwillingness or inability to pass the comprehension along to the listener. Over time, this lack of understanding breeds a great deal of uncertainty and fear of change. Unfortunately, it is at some level the status quo on most projects, which is ironic given that our industry is driven by innovation, change, and advancement of the state of the art.
Tribal wisdom, however, is the virtuous flip side of this tribal mythology. It is prescribed action with understanding, how accompanied by why, and is adaptable to new environments, new situations, and new problems. It transcends rote copying, and provides illumination through a comprehensive discussion of the reasons behind the action. At some point in the past, for almost every action or decision in a system, someone knew why it was done that way. Carrying those decisions forward, even the small ones, can be critical. Small decisions accrete into large systems, and small designs build into large designs. By ensuring that we have a strong tradition of knowledge retention that facilitates understanding, we build a tradition of tribal wisdom.
Tribal wisdom is what design patterns were intended to collect. Sadly, they are frequently (mis)treated as tribal mythology, by applying the how without a clear comprehension of the why.
If you haven’t yet had the pleasure of running into this situation in your career, let me offer another example that may be illuminating. Recently my wife and I bought our first house, and with it, our first yard. The region we live in is renowned for its rain and consequently its moss. Now, I like moss. It’s green, it takes about zero maintenance, and it makes a nice soft ground cover. It satisfies all the usual requirements for a yard, with less work than grass requires, but we had an odd situation. Part of the yard is heavily shaded and rarely, if ever, sees sun. This area is basically solid moss, with no grass or any other vegetation. Even shade-tolerant grasses can’t get enough light to thrive.
Twenty feet on either side of the heavily shaded portion, however, sunlight is available on most days when the sun is actually out. Moss grows in patches through this section, but in my initial assessment, I thought it was fine. The moss and grass were coexisting nicely, and the moss wasn’t choking out the grass, merely filling in the places where the grass wasn’t quite so thick. In the sunniest areas, there was almost no moss but lots of grass. In the shadiest areas, there was solid moss but no grass. In the transitional regions, the two coexisted. What could be better?
Unfortunately, long-time residents who saw this situation were horrified. “You have to get rid of all the moss!” When I asked why, I was met with answers such as “Because it’s not grass.” “Because it’s what you do.” “Because it’s bad for the lawn.” No one could tell me, to my satisfaction, why I should get rid of the moss. It seemed to me that if I removed all of the moss, in all areas, regardless of the local micro-environment, I would have a bare spot where grass wouldn’t grow in the shade. This was less than optimal.
To make matters worse, as is the case in many software projects, I had inherited a situation in which I had no idea what the previous residents had done for maintenance in the yard or why. There was no documentation to indicate what I should do for my lawn or why the yard had been left in this configuration. So I ran a couple of experiments. In the shadiest areas, I pulled up a small section of moss and seeded it with grass. In the rest of the yard, I let the moss go to see what would happen.
The grass seed in the shadiest area never thrived. Some sprouted, but it could never get established well. Applying the tribal mythology would have resulted in bare dirt in a good section of my yard, and frankly, I prefer the moss to that. It is green and lush, and it thrives in that area without maintenance. For that specific area, moss is a good ground cover solution.
In the rest of the yard with little or no shade, it turns out that moss and grass do play well together, more or less. The grass grows nicely, and the moss can’t overcome it directly. Unfortunately, the moss has a side effect. In the sunniest areas, the moss acts as a protective layer for weeds to sprout underneath, safe from birds and mice who would eat the seeds or shoots, and properly moist. The moss won’t choke out the grass, but the weeds definitely will. By letting the moss exist in the sunny areas, I was giving weeds a nursery to get established, and when they penetrated the moss, they thrived in the sunlight and spread rapidly. The moss also provided a protective moist layer for the roots of weeds to travel along, offering them an unhindered growth channel.
In the shadiest areas, this wasn’t a problem, because there simply isn’t enough sun for grass or weeds to grow well, but in the sunny areas, it was horrible. Within a couple of months, I was fighting a literal turf war with the weeds. The moss was never a problem by itself, but it set the scene for a much larger one.
And now I know the why behind removing moss from a lawn. It’s not so much the moss that is the issue, it is that the moss creates a secondary microclimate that sets up a serious situation. Essentially, the moss creates a new set of forces at play that form a new context. Within that new context, that new environment, new problems arise—like weeds. Now the advice to remove the moss makes sense, at least for areas where weeds are an issue, such as the sunny areas of my yard.
Because I know the why, I can now alter my application of this knowledge according to the environmental forces. In the sunny areas, I must remove and prevent the moss so that weeds are not a later problem. In the shady areas, I choose not to because doing so would create another problem for me, leaving me with bare dirt where I’d struggle to get grass to grow well.
As it is, because I know the reasons behind the advice, I can custom fit the solution I was given—“Remove the moss”—based on the context—sunny vs. shady—and not only solve my initial problem but prevent new ones from being created. What was initially tribal mythology is now tribal wisdom that can be shared, adjusted, and applied when and where appropriate. In essence, it is the beginning of a pattern.